CHICAGO — More Americans are turning to the emergency room for routine dental problems — a choice that often costs 10 times more than preventive care and offers far fewer treatment options than a dentist's office, according to an analysis of government data and dental research.
Most of those emergency visits involve trouble such as toothaches that could have been avoided with regular checkups but went untreated, in many cases because of a shortage of dentists, particularly those willing to treat Medicaid patients, the analysis said.
The number of ER visits nationwide for dental problems increased 16 percent from 2006 to 2009, and the report released Tuesday by the Pew Center on the States suggests the trend is continuing.
In Florida, for example, there were more than 115,000 ER dental visits in 2010, resulting in more than $88 million in charges. That included more than 40,000 Medicaid patients, a 40 percent increase from 2008.
Many ER dental visits involve the same patients seeking additional care. In Minnesota, nearly 20 percent of all dental-related ER visits are return trips, the analysis said.
That's because emergency rooms generally are not staffed by dentists. They can offer pain relief and medicine for infected gums but not much more for dental patients. And many patients are unable to find or afford follow-up treatment, so they end up back in the emergency room.
"Emergency rooms are really the canary in the coal mine. If people are showing up in the ER for dental care, then we've got big holes in the delivery of care," said Shelly Gehshan, director of Pew's children's dental campaign. "It's just like pouring money down a hole.